Krautrock and the Sublime
The following is included in Krautrock, a beautifully produced book edited by Nikos Kotsopoulos just out from Black Dog publishing:
Imagine you are standing alone on a craggy windswept sea cliff beneath a moonless night sky. You spread your arms out at your side like superhero wings and you slowly begin to ascend, a dreamlike absorption into the dark embrace of the galaxy. Your pace quickens until you are rocketing through the stars like a spectral eyeball shot out of a quantum canon. The immensity of space swallows you up, and as nearly all of the perceptual frameworks you normally use to process reality evaporate, you become profoundly and ecstatically disoriented. Boundaries melt, nowhere is up or down, and your immense speed has morphed into a glacial drift. Your tiny mind is blown as you attempt to compass the conundrum of the infinite, and to plumb the meaning of the flickering flash of awareness you call your life in light of this vast void of shifting three-dimensional geometries, this empty and shattered immensity, this cosmos.
Now here’s the question: what soundtrack was playing during your trip?
If you heard hard-ass hippie freak-out rock replete with bongos, scattershot guitar solos, and feedbacking flutes, or if you heard spectral and atonal Moogified soundscapes too rock’n’roll to count as avant-garde music and too experimental to count as rock’n’roll—in other words, if you heard Krautrock—then you are not quite as alone as you might have felt when you first turned to face the universe. You are, at the very least, standing there with Edgar Froese, who first used the term Kosmiche Musik to characterize the music Tangerine Dream started to make with their deep space electronics-heavy second album, 1971’s Alpha Centauri. Though Kosmische Musik is sometimes conflated with the general category of Krautrock, my ears tell me that some crucial Krautrock bands—Can and Neu—are not nearly as kosmiche as acts like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulz, Popul Vuh, and a lot of the records released on Rolph Ulrich-Kaiser’s Kosmiche Musik label. Kosmiche Musik, in my mind, seems to be a crucial strand of the progressive psychedelic music that appeared in Germany in the early 1970s: an alternately meditative and ferocious dissolution of boundaries that invoked, through sound or function or packaging, the unearthly otherworlds that link outer and inner space.
But this only begs the question: what does it mean to speak of the cosmic in music?
To edge toward an answer, we must first strip the word of its purely scientific or positivist connotations. The cosmic is never just the brute fact of the material universe, but the cluster of feelings, imaginings, and spiritual intuitions that arise when we try to wrap our minds and hearts around that immense fact—or to make art from such inevitably fragile wrappings. The cosmic, in other words, is not just an object but a quality of consciousness.
What sort of quality? For the ancient Greeks, kosmos meant an “orderly arrangement;” in Homer, kosmeo describes the practice of marshalling troops. The ancient geometry shaman Pythagoras, who believed that number and mathematical form lay at the heart of reality, was probably the first thinker to use kosmos to characterize the material universe, which, as you might expect, was imagined to be an ordered and harmonious whole. Pythagoras’ famous concept of the “music of the spheres,” which is hardly unrelated in spirit to kosmiche musik, derived from his belief that the mathematical ratios that underlie harmonic musical overtones are also incarnated in the structure of the heavens—particularly the ratios of planetary orbits, which were imagined as onion-skin like spheres nested within one another. By the time of Plato, kosmos had come to denote the entire visible universe, a balanced and ordered whole that was crafted by a wise demiurge who made his creation beautiful as well as true. This element of beauty is key to the classic philosophical account. In the Timaeus, Plato describes the cosmos not only as the holistic incarnation of rational and geometric principles, but also as a kind of living creature, “the fairest and most perfect of intelligible beings.”
When we gaze up at the night sky, or when we analyze the sacred geometry seemingly carved into the planetary orbits or our astrological natal charts, we can still sniff the atmosphere of beauty and perfection that inspired the old Greeks and their craftsman cosmos. The contemporary fact that the universe displays self-similar structures on the greatest of scales—patterns born just microseconds after the Big Band that still striate the whole enchilada—is enough to give anyone a Platonic flashback. But another quality has entered our experience of the cosmos as well: a stern and sometimes self-immolating feeling of immensity and awe mixed with disorientation, loneliness, even fear. The cosmos, it seems, is no more beautiful than it is inhospitable. Cataclysmic explosions abound; meteorites have pulverized planet earth (and will do so again); and the inconceivable number of galaxies itself undermines whatever comfort we might take in cosmic existence with the sheer absurdity of the situation. Outside of faith communities, few of us can even imagine the old idea of a master creator: Pythagoras’ composer or Plato’s craftsman or the good Lord who rules it all. The awe we feel confronted by a desert night-sky, the awe that lays at the hot heart of the kosmiche, is, in a sense, the after-image of this now absent demiurge.
This ghost of God has replaced the mantle of the sacred with the more modern condition of the sublime—a concept and aesthetic experience that remains one the major cultural sources of the kosmiche vibe. Though most associated with the blasted heaths and crashing waves of Romanticism, the notion of the sublime arose roughly a century earlier, at the onset of the Age of Enlightenment, when well-heeled British tourists on the road to Italy got freaked out by the Alps. Making their way through the mountains, gentlemen like Joseph Addison and the third Earl of Shaftesbury glimpsed a craggy and ruinous landscape whose jagged expanse powerfully moved their souls in a pleasurable if disturbing manner that had little to do with the well-proportioned sense of beauty that the ancients associated with the craftsman’s cosmos. Addison’s account of his 1699 tour is peppered with terms like “unbounded” and “unlimited”—terms of excess and boundary dissolution rather than proportion and harmony. This dissolution of borders, coupled with a sense of immensity and expressive chaos, became hallmarks of the sublime.
Inevitably the philosophers sunk their teeth into this spooky but cognitive thrill, a specifically modern feeling that was also a new way of seeing the world, and especially the world of nature. In the middle of the eighteenth century, Edmund Burke boldly contrasted the sublime with the beautiful, characterizing the aesthetic pleasure of the former as a sense of astonishment mixed with fear, a heady brew that could be evoked by objects marked by “vastness, infinity, magnificence.” A few decades later, Immanuel Kant took up the baton in his Critique of Judgment. Laying the groundwork for the mise-en-scene of a thousand horror films and gothic novels to come, Kant wrote that nature stirs up the idea of the sublime “in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power.” Kant contrasted the bounded limits of the beautiful object with the boundlessness of the sublime environement. But the philosopher suggested something even more trippy: that the feeling of sublimity does not really lie in the object at all, however dizzying and immense. Instead, that rush of unnerving awe lies precisely in the failure of the human imagination to fully grasp the thing it confronts. In other words, the sublime lies within, a swirling void that expands just beyond that cliff edge where we reach the limits of our own vision, even—though Kant himself would not say this—the limits of our own reason.
Stand with me and Froese at the edge of this cliff, and you will see how the rhetoric of the sublime infected the modern experience of the kosmiche. From the moment that Galileo peered through his amplified glass and bespyed the rings of Saturn, telescopes and their spectrum-scanning descendents have produced a picture of the universe that is constantly expanding in both its details and its magnitude (not to mention its startling paradoxes). You can get a glimmer of the giddiness this perpetual perceptual expansion can induce by recalling that, only a century ago, the majority of astronomers still believed the universe contained only a single galaxy. The limits of the Milky Way were the limits of the cosmos. Then Edwin Hubble started analyzing images captured with Mount Wilson’s 100-inch telescope in Southern California. Realizing that the variable stars nestled in some distant spiral nebulae lay far beyond boundaries of the Milky Way, he concluded that these nebulae were galaxies like our own, a few of what we now know are hundreds of billions of star clumps. Moreover, by comparing the red shift of these distant stellar objects, Hubble also grokked that the universe was constantly expanding—a giddy and somewhat nauseating prospect that literally exploded whatever static assumptions remained from the clockwork universe of the ancients.
Hubble’s expansion of the physical universe through both space and time is a perfect expression of the sublime object that dissolves boundaries and overwhelms our imagination (what Kant would call the mathematical sublime). Indeed, it is in the cosmos that the sublime finds its final, perhaps terminal home. The raging storms and craggy moors of the Romantic era, when the sublime became a crucial aesthetic category, have now been leached of their intensity through over-expose and cliché. We’ve all seen that movie. Driving along the highways of the Alps today, we think of postcards and Disneyland rides. But when we pour over tarted-up photos of nebulae from the Hubble telescope, or simply follow the current astronomical picture, with all its paradoxes, gaps, and immensities, we can still taste an unironic and sometimes startling sense of the sublime—“an emotion,” wrote Kant, “that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination.”
Though rooted in the confrontation with nature’s extremes, the sublime is an essentially aesthetic quality, and so inevitably became woven into Western art, and especially into the abstract and somewhat boundless art of music. From Beethoven to Bruckner to Strauss, the Romantic symphonic music grappled with vast imponderables. After a century of atonality, noise, and chthonic electric guitars, most of this music seems pretty tame to our ears, far too measured and melodically restrained to conjure the alien and “dead earnest” quality of the cosmic—that quality that H.P. Lovecraft would have called outsideness. Holst’s famous suite The Planets, written during World War I, is the last gasp of a charming clockwork solar system that would soon be pulverized by quantum mechanics and, on the musical front, serialism. These twin shocks made many early twentieth-century composers wary of the cosmic and its overheated rhetoric of the sublime.
But one can never fully repress the cosmos—that picture of the universe that we can never do without, and that, whatever its degree of materialism, continues to incarnate mystery. In the postwar world, the cosmic slipped back into music. Oliver Messiaen’s immense imaginative investment in a creative but God-centered universe gave a lot of his brash and colorful large-scale symphonic work an undeniable galactic dimension. By the late 1950s, Messiaen’s student Stockhausen was paring his serial and electronic experiments with a cosmic sensibility that was both mystical and mathematical. Stockhausen, a longhair who would later meditate before his performances like a good Krautrocker, described the shift in postwar music as “an orientation away from mankind…Once again one looked up to the stars and began an intensive measuring and counting.”
It is a more than a kosmiche coincidence that Stockhausen’s musical mysticism manifested itself partly through electronics. As listeners of Klause Schulz, Tangerine Dream, and Popul Vuh recognize, the timbre and tonality of electronic instruments are fundamental to the kosmiche vibe. Why? In the nineteenth century, the technological capture of electricity and electro-magnetic effects went hand-in-hand with the conceptual revolution introduced by the recognition of the electromagnetic spectrum, a literally universal field of invisible vibrating reality that, inevitably, created a scientific if no longer strictly materialist basis for the occult consciousness of higher spiritual dimensions. The fundamentally cosmic dimension of electronic sound notably asserts itself in the peculiar fate of theremin, one of the first electronic instruments, and certainly—with its spectral tone and incorporeal interface—one of the spookiest. Though Clara Rockmore used the instrument to perform the classics at Carnegie Hall, the device had performed a classic high-brow/low-brow flip-flop by the 1950s, when film composers started milking the thing for eerie and often extraterrestrial exotica in the soundtracks for flicks like Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing. Cosmic sounds can be sublime, even alienating, but they are also pop.
Perhaps the most resonant instance of such a galactic cross-over between experimentalism and the popcorn crowd occurred when Stanley Kubrick appropriated a couple pieces by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti in the 1960s. In his mountainous chromatic choral works Lux Aeterna and Requiem, Ligeti layered fluctuating lines and hair-splitting intervals according to invisible rules of “micropolyphany.” (As with much of Stockhausen’s work, Ligeti’s music was much less “chaotic” than it sounded on its surface.) With its constantly drifting harmonic vectors, the music sounded as if it were trying to orient itself in deep space by drifting in all directions at once. Without permission, Kubrick sampled these works for the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Requiem’s eerie “Kyrie” was unforgettably pared with the appearance of the extraterrestrial monolith that heralds and may actually trigger breakthroughs in human consciousness—breakthroughs that, in the experimental trip sequence that closes the film anyway, take place through an arduous visionary passage through the sublime.
The strange fate of Ligeti’s choral works—a fate that fuses religion, science fiction, avant-garde music, and pop psychedelia—sets the stage for the proper emergence of German kosmiche musik. If we rightly refuse to use the term kosmiche to tag the whole progressive psychedelic German music scene, we can reserve it for a musical sensibility that fluctuates between two largely improvisatory poles of interstellar overdrive. On the one hand, you find yourself sucked towards the black holes that lies at the heart of the heaviest jams laid down by Amon Düül II and Ash Ra Tempel: a ferociously intense psychedelic spooge-fest whose disavowal of the usual Anglo-American blues substratum signals a formal transcendence of the planet and its “earthy” music. At the other pole, the kosmiche freespace loses all sructural relationship to rock’n’roll, even to rhythm and tonality, and becomes the literally groundbreaking “space music” of early Tangerine Dream and Irrlicht-era Klaus Schulze.
What unites the poles of this sacred dyad of interstellar freakery is the quality of boundlessness. The heavy psychedelic jams grow stronger the more they can incarnate the sublime freak philosophy of “anything goes,” while the proto-ambient soundscapes of Tangerine Dream and others erodes traditional melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic markers. These two musical strategies—often combined, as in the better Cosmic Jokers recordings—also reflect what Arthur Schopenhauer characterized, in The World as Will and Representation, as the “twofold nature” of sublime consciousness. When confronted with convulsive and immense eruptions of nature, Schopenhauer argued, we feel in touch with forces that can annihilate us; we are “helpless against powerful nature, dependent, abandoned to chance, a vanishing nothing in the face of stupendous forces.” On the other hand, Schopenhauer describes the deeper peace that arises on a deeper level than such struggle, as the subject—or listener—“feels himself as the eternal, serene subject of knowing, who as the condition of every object is the supporter of this whole world.”
In the sublime dialectic of the kosmiche, titanic and inhuman struggles are mysteriously pared with a serene acceptance of an underlying unity. This deeply psychedelic logic produces the peculiar fusion of drive and drift that characterizes the more mystical dimensions of Krautrock. After all, since few longhaired German musicians were serving as astronauts or even astronomers in the early 70s, the sublime cosmos they were mapping with their music was one they discovered inside their own awareness—what the Canadian psychiatrist Richard Bucke was probably the first to call, in his famous 1901 book, “cosmic consciousness.” Remember: the kosmiche is always a quality of the mind as well as an object. Popul Vuh’s “Vuh,” from In Den Garten Pharoas, is utterly cosmic, and yet it seems to radiate from within an ancient crypt rather than a black hole at the heart of a distant galaxy. The sublime is a mode of spirit; in the end, it needs no science-fiction prop to justify its wacked-out plunge into the resplendent void. Just don’t look before you leap.